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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Clever humour – a Myth-demeanour?

Roddy Kay, Brasil

Roddy Kay teaches in Cultura Inglesa, Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil and is a Cambridge ESOL Local Secretary. He has been in Recife since late 1989. He is a graduate in French and German Language and Literature. From 1973 until his arrival in Brazil, he was a British Council officer. In the 80s, Roddy worked in Audit and as a Finance trainer which took him all over the world except to South America. He has been compensating for this ever since. E-mail:

Humour is well known for often being rich in exophoric references to L1 customs and behaviours, dependent on the assumed general knowledge of the L1 community and playful in its use of lexis and phonology, exemplified in the humorous use of homonyms and homophones or echoes of these. Any of these features can be barriers to enjoying L1 humour and a combination of them may make the humour intended incomprehensible to non-native speakers even when they are proficient in the target language. The native speaker language teacher quickly develops a feel for what types of humour are or are not readily usable in the classroom for any given level. In this article, I tackle the use of humour from the opposite stance by taking an example of typical British undergraduate humour and exploring how this can be generative of creative language production in the EFL classroom.

The background and inspiration for this article came from an absent-minded typing error by an English native speaker in an essay which accompanied his application for a CELTA course. He wrote; “I am looking forward to developing my knowledge of ELT mythologies (my italics) on the course.” He did, of course, mean methodologies. While I instantly recognized this and the fact that we are all prone to such types of error – a hazard of writing on-line – I nevertheless considered this a wonderful example of a malapropism that called for humorous development.

The reader will recall that a malapropism is defined as “(usually) a misapplication of a word: specifically the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1975), the term itself being derived from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in RB Sheridan’s comedy “The Rivals”, a classic comedy of the English theatre, written in 1775. Mrs. Malaprop said such things as “He is the very pineapple of politeness”. She meant ‘pinnacle’. Such errors are far from being confined to classification as a literary device for comic effect. I had an old aunt who unwittingly made many such ‘errors’. For example, she always referred to a cough syrup called Benolyn as a Benny Lynch (the name of a boxer who was Scotland’s first-ever champion at Flyweight). Similarly, and presumably, on the model of ‘to give someone something to think about’, she gave her mouth something to taste; her tongue something to say etc. Not malapropisms unless I coin the phrase syntactic malapropisms or, in her honour, Nellyisms, but funny because so unexpected. I digress but out of this, if teachers create malapropisms and get learners to identify them, this may in itself be a rich, occasional source of language learning even for learners at and below intermediate level. For example, Brazilian colleagues will understand the mis-applications in ‘The cook is on the fable’ or “Can I think a gas of walker?” or maybe even “Teach her! Water name?”

Returning to my main theme, as luck would have it, I received the mythologies e-mail shortly before 1 April and I saw this afforded me an opportunity to write a spoof article on a new module for the Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA) allegedly called The Mythologies of ELT for which I complied the Reading List below. I sent it with an accompanying dead-pan humour e-mail to various colleagues here in Recife and in the UK and it was posted on the ELTeCS Latin America list on 30 March. To my surprise, several friends thought I was being serious, even volunteering to conduct academic research into this new topic (!), and to my disappointment, no-one has added to the Reading List.

There are many possible reasons for this but the most likely are a) people have not found it funny because they don’t understand the humour; b) people don’t find the play on words or playing with the presentation of an academic Reading List funny; or c) I hope the most likely, people have simply not found the time to produce their own examples.
This makes me reflect critically on my efforts. In cultural terms, I see that some in non-native English speaking cultures, including here in Brazil, may find making fun of academic practice shocking or, at least, that it is prudent not to identify oneself with poking fun at intellectual life.

In the early 1980s, I remember that on a British Council summer school on contemporary issues in English language and literature, one of the set texts was Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man – a book that even today I find screechingly funny. It parodies the unprincipled and unscrupulous behaviour and morals of a young, married, ostensibly left-wing academic at a fictional UK university founded in the 1960s. Readers of the time associated it with the University of Essex – a then hotbed of leftist activism and a hippie lifestyle. However, the response by most participants - all English teachers including university teachers mainly drawn from West and East Europe - to the book was that it was too shocking. The feedback they unmistakably gave was that one does not make fun of university life or left-wing ideals that have been distorted. I still say: why not?

Perhaps my view would change if the humour was intended to bring about political change but I would hope that in such circumstances my instinct would be to counter-attack in kind: in other words, to fight humour with humour. The contemporary American poet Arnold Adoff says: I really want a good poem to sprout roses and spit bullets. Perhaps in some circumstances, the same ought to be said of the target of humour. This is in my opinion certainly true of the best of social or political satire. A famous example from British politics is when the former Labour Party Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey said of his Conservative opposite number Sir Geoffrey Howe that to be attacked (verbally) by Sir Geoffrey is “like being savaged by a dead sheep!” Or as a Brazilian example, the late Miguel Arraes, a hero of the left, said of the proposed policies of his right-wing opponent, Joaquim Francisco: I assure my supporters that Pernambuco will grow under Joaquim. The audience yelled “No, Miguel !”, thinking he had gone ga-ga But he repeated it and again the audience screamed “No, Miguel ” He paused, smiled and said, “Yes, I assure you that Pernambuco will grow…like a horse’s tail, downwards!”

In ELT classrooms I see no reason why humour cannot be iconoclastic provided it is not calculated to cause offence and teachers take due account of local sensitivities. I would expect that the humour would mainly be about how to play with language for its own sake with any target of the humour being relatively non-controversial.

In Brazil, and perhaps one can generalize to all countries not of the First World, educational attainment and entry to the professions or higher echelons of government are considered such outstanding achievements that for many it is almost taboo to make fun of them. A trivial example in Brazil is that some conservative senior members of the legal profession object to a football referee being called a juiz (judge) and insist under threat of legal action that public broadcasters and journalists should use the term árbitro. Happily the population at large remain blind to the justice of such a sentence. Ooops ! Have I put my foot in it ?

Let me now turn to my Reading List and analyse the humour in some examples with a view to being suggestive of how some examples might be generative of exercises for the classroom. I refer to the examples by the number I have given them in the List.

General: I have perhaps been too clever by half by attempting to make the format of the academic Reading list itself part of the fun. For example, many of the dates of publication are ridiculous but where this is so they are related to the author or subject matter of the title.
I have of course not only played with the names of well-known authors (all of whom I admire and respect) and book titles but also with publishers names. I also play with the idea of giving precise references to a text which appears in a collection of essays and parodied the notion of referring to revised editions.

  1. This is playing with the title of the famous book Language, Truth and Logic by A J Ayer. The “authors’ of ‘my’ book sound like ‘airy-fairy’ meaning extremely abstract and intellectual, not practical, other-worldly.
    Generative point: There is of course no need for classroom practice to build examples around a common theme. Teachers could think of unrelated well-known book/ cinema/ song titles and people associated with them. Then give the class examples of how to play with these titles and names ideas and pre-teach any vocabulary you consider helpful. Next let them create their own examples e.g. The Sound of Music could give the Hounds of Music; Harry Potter could give Hairy Podster; and I have always loved the song Torn between Two Lovers having the nickname The Apache Love Song (a reference to the Apache Indian torture of having their captives pulled apart by two horses - a bit too sophisticated to copy for the classroom, of course).
  2. The references here are to Chomsky and Michael Moore the film director and their attacks on Skinner and Bush;
  3. -4-5 Apologies to Jeremy; Krashen and Tracy; Rod and Brian - Widgy is my phonetic version of Ouija.
  4. Pallet, ABL = palatable Apologies to Martin’s “Tasks..” and IH, a serious outfit. Generative point: playing with letters which also sound like a suffix is easily done.
  5. “to swan off’ = to go away, leave without permission. Apologies to Michael.
  6. The idea here is a reference to the Latin declension in the nominative form – bonus – bona – bonum and the malapropism of nominative instead of ‘normative’;
  7. Apologies to Geoffrey. Notice my fun here is to play with two publishers names including the idea of one –armed Admiral Nelson re-enforced by the date 1812.
  8. ‘deaf as a coot’ is an expression meaning stone deaf. Seiyit Aghen = say it again. The ‘Medium’ in the title to play with its twin meanings of a) average and b) the person who is said to speak with spirits (mythical?)
  9. Hope the gay community laughs at this one. My convoluted thinking on the title is from the Procul Harum song ‘Knights in White Satin’. Knights wore chain-mail: hence e-mail. And of course there are the homophones mail/ male. AC/DC is an ‘out-of-date?’ slang expression for the bisexual community.
    Generative point: Schoolboy humour plays with real proper names that have grammatical homophones e.g. here Toby = to be; and at 17 Mustapha = (I) must have a; another example is Ivor = I have a.., so that we might have a book on Making Soft Drinks by Ivor Crush. Terrible humour, I know but some older children and younger teenagers love this kind of humour in the UK.
  10. Khan, U = can you Acha, sahib is a well known phrase from Hindi meaning something Yes, sir but often used in circumstances where the subordinate who says it has no idea what is being said/ asked..
  11. intended as a more intellectual joke. Thorn, ash and wyn are the names of runic characters which look very simple in form and were used by the Scandinavian peoples who invaded Britain. Runic inscriptions can still be found in the UK today, the last known examples being recorded in the late 16th/ early 17th century.
    Generic point: This or a similar example on runes could of course be used for a bit of cultural input into the classroom. No doubt other extensions into cultural studies will arise from different examples.
  12. ‘Graf” is the German word for ‘Count’ and of course here the full name gives calligraphy echoed in Caliphates, the territorial areas associated with the Ottoman Empire at a time when the Turks were known as the Saracens. The Saracen Head is the name of the oldest, very well known Glasgow pub.
  13. Apologies to Caroline, and depending on your affiliations, dear reader, to Man U supporters! Uppsala is a real university in Sweden which is highly respected internationally.
  14. Authors names play on kiwi, pterodactyl and Great Auk. As two are extinct RIP = Rest in Peace. Green-Pierce plays on Greenpeace
  15. Mustapha Phagg = I must have a fag (cigarette)
  16. Beowulf and Angles and Saxons are referred to. The book title echoes Recipes for Tired Teachers and of course the fun of the authors of the revised edition is the homophonic bake them and eat them.
    Generative point: On the model of Bake, M, teachers can invent author’s names where the family name is also a verb (imperative) in English and the letter M represents them (‘ –em’).
  17. Reference to the Persian King Xerxes and his bodyguard. The ‘authors’ give: Beat them! Lash them! and be happy!

I hope that this article will prompt and encourage some readers to create their own exercises and perhaps that these and other readers will add titles to the Mythologies reading List. An obvious target would be Whining and Divining in the Classroom but as Aunt Nelly might have said, I bleed with you not to tell her.


Reading List for new DELTA Module on The Mythologies of ELT

Background Reading

Aire. Y and F. Airey 399 BC Language, Myth and Logic Socratic Publishing

Tsiu Oms Kei, N (in Moore, M 2001) Primitive Behaviorism Revisited Left Jab Bush Publishing Co.


Armour, G ‘Whizz’ 2001 The Principles and Practice of English for Extra-Sensory Purposes UFO Press

King, S and Frank Terror 1835 The Supernatural Approach House of Usher

Resource Books

Baloney, R and B. Tollerent 2008 Discover English – is there anybody there? The Widgy Board

Pallet, ABL 1993 Tales for Language Teachers Hi de Hi

Swanning, OFF. (due out 2009) Impractical English Usage – a new medium Romany Books


Quirk, US, A. Quark. and UM Quurk, Ides of March 44 AD A Nominative Historical Grammar Palatine Hill

Leech, G 1812 The Mean English Verb esp the Present Perfect McGrunt Uphill, an arm of Nelson


Azakut, DEF **** Improve your Medium Listening Skills Seiyit Aghen

Gaye, AC & DC 2006 E-mails in White Satin Toby Gladd Publications

Khan, U 2008 Recording real-time on-line read-my-lips sound bites Acha Sahib, Bangalore

Thor, N, A. She and W. Ynn 1066 Writing made simple Viking Press

Kally (Graf) 1683 Advanced Writing Skills: Lessons from the Caliphates Saracen Head, Vienna

Resource Materials

Grausam, Karolina before 4004 BC Beaker People Death Chants Uppsala Univ Press (rev ed 2007 Man U Supporters Club)

Quay, WE , T Ery-Daktyl and GT Auk 1999 Flights of Fancy Green- Pierce, R I P

Phagg, Mustapha 634 (reprinted 2008) Overcoming Bad Habits Laruse, éditions Pieds-Noirs

Wolf, BO circa 700AD Recipes for Young Children Sachs and Engels (revised ed. Baik, M and Eat, M 2000)

Xerxes, R 460 BC Discipline in the Classroom: Advice from the Immortals Beet, M, L. Aschem and B. Appy.


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